Tuesday, 1 May 2018

A Historical Vignette: The Cost of National Pride and Vainglory

The Post-War English Disease

One of the conundrums of British history post World War II is why the country's economy sloughed along in the doldrums for twenty years or so after the war ended.  We have forgotten how long rationing lasted in the UK post 1945.  In comparison, the economies of France, Germany, Holland boomed in fairly short order.  Yet, the economy of triumphant Britain languished in a noisome backwater.  Why?

After war's end the only way forward
. . . was for the British to impose on themselves unprecedented conditions of restrain and voluntary penury--which accounts for the much remarked upon feature of those years: that proud, victorious Great Britain seemed somehow tighter, poorer, grayer and grimmer than any of the erstwhile defeated, occupied and ravished lands across the water.  Everything was rationed, restricted, controlled.  [Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: Vintage Books, 2005), p.162.]
All this, mark you, was in a country which was not invaded.  For many, the post-war conditions in Britain were worse than the actual years of conflict. 
This was the age of austerity. . . . (A)lmost everything was rationed or simply unavailable: meat, sugar, clothes, cars, gasoline, foreign travel, even sweets.  Bread rationing, never imposed during the way, was introduced in 1946 and no abandoned until July 1948. . . . Street scenes in post-war Britain would have been familiar to citizens in the Soviet bloc--in the words of one English housewife, recalling ehse years, 'It was queues for everything, you know, even if you didn't know what you were queuing for . . . you joined it because you knew there was something at the end of it.' [Ibid.]
It seems incredible that Germany was recovering its infrastructure and economy faster than the UK.
The essayist, Cyril Connolly, offered this picture of London in 1947:
here the ego is at half-pressure; most of us are not men and women but members of a vast, seedy, overworked, over-legislated neuter class, with our drab clothes, our ration books and murder stories, our envious, strict, old-world apathies--a care-worn people.  And the symbol of this mood is London, now the largest, saddest and dirtiest of great cities, with its miles of unpainted, half-inhabited houses, its chopless chop-houses, its beerless pubs, its once vivid quarters losing all personality, its squares bereft of elegance . . . its crowds mooning around the stained green wicker of the cafeterias in their shabby raincoats, under a sky permanently dull and lowering like a metal dish cover.  [Ibid.]
The cause for this austerity lay in the costs of a post-war "Raj".  The cost of maintaining the Empire was staggering.  Britain was maintaining three naval fleets (Atlantic, the Med, and the Indian Ocean).  It had a permanent "China station".  It maintained 120 RAF squadrons world wide.  It had armies or parts of armies permanently based in seven different countries, outside the UK.  In addition it had the cost of maintaining its global diplomatic network, together with its world-wide colonial civil services.  Every available halfpenny went overseas.

Fiscally, then, the UK remained on a global war footing.  Its citizens consequently experienced wartime conditions at home for years after the end of conflict in order to pay the cost for this overreach.  It was madness.  The war did not really end--economically speaking--for the British until well into the nineteen fifties. 

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